[Photos by JUSTIN ROMAN]
BY JEFF DEENEY On the morning of February 15th neighbors found a Jane Doe laying riddled with stabwounds in broad daylight near 55th and Market Streets. The body was in a narrow, fenced in alleyway next to an abandoned building on the corner of tiny Sickels Street that runs from Market to Ludlow between 54th and 55th. Patrol cars and news vans swarmed the scene and helicopters hovered overhead. The police hung sheets from the fence to block the body from view but it was a Friday morning and school kids were already out and on their way to class. This kind of violence is nothing new in the neighborhood. The Market Street corridor from 52nd Street all the way west to 63rd is one of the most dangerous stretches of land in the city; on the Inquirer’s crime maps there’s a practically uninterrupted stream of red dots following this course that marks the shooting and homicide scenes from over the past two years.
Details later emerged in the Inquirer identifying Jane Doe as 31 year old Nakeia McCafferty, a homeless drug addict with family ties in Southwest Philly. According to her mother she occasionally surfaced there looking roughed up from running the streets, in need of a shower and meal before heading back into the winter cold to chase her next high. She left six children in tow, all placed in her mother’s custody by child welfare. The children were from different fathers, most of whose whereabouts are unknown. She had numerous unsuccessful rehab stays. The police knew her from previous brushes as a prostitute; court records show that she racked up drug charges back in 2000.
This is the life of a low-bottom drug addict. These are depths that few return from.
The modest memorial laid out for Nakeia was, not surprisingly, very weather-worn when we got to it a couple months later. It was a warm weekend afternoon and Sickels Street was alive with children riding their bikes and rollerblading in circles and drawing with chalk on the sidewalk. A young girl, maybe 12 years old, wearing thick eyeglasses and a colorful Muslim headscarf rode her bike to where we were shooting photographs and parked there. When I looked at her she held my eye contact. Her face told me, “I have something to say to you,” but she didn’t want to volunteer it, she wanted to be asked. I debated breaking the ice to get her story but decided not to. Talking to a minor who probably witnessed the aftermath of a violent homicide without the presence of a guardian wasn’t something I was comfortable doing. I let her watch, which she did without saying a word.
What many people who haven’t spent a lot of time in Philly’s worst neighborhoods don’t know is that the character of the streets changes with the hours. Even the most rundown and drug infested blocks have families living there — maybe young moms with kids, maybe some oldheads who’ve been there for decades — absent the resources to leave for greener pastures. During the day, especially when school is out, even the worst blocks fill up kids playing and grandmoms toting groceries. The feeling on the meanest streets is good in the morning; neighbors will stop to chat with a stranger, and I’ve learned a lot about Philadelphia from these conversations.
As the day progresses, the mood on the block gradually changes, getting rowdy as the older kids rouse after sleeping in, and then getting tense later when the drug dealers take to the corners. Social workers who do intensive field work in these neighborhoods try to finish their home visits and be off the streets by 3:00, when things tend to get unpredictable. By sundown the addicts have crawled from the abandoned houses they squat in, like the one Nikeia was found next to. The sounds of gunshots, shouting from drug disputes, the breaking bottles from corner bar altercations all ring out. Those same kids who were outside playing that morning are still here, but now they’re laying in bed, listening to the madness outside their window.
Violence is trauma — physical, emotional, spiritual. The residents of violent neighborhoods are repeatedly, habitually traumatized. The ultimate trauma is a homicide: Pools of blood that neighbors can see from nearby windows, that they try to shield from their children’s sight; the screams of the victim and the screams of the family when they arrive on the scene those terrible moments later; the sirens and flashing lights and crowds of strangers that linger until dawn. All of this sensory input is traumatizing, especially to a small child who doesn’t understand it.
So, given that context, the question remains, that’s been posed to me a number of times: what’s with all these piles of stuffed animals? One function of the street memorial is to reclaim public spaces despoiled by violence. What struck me about Nakeia’s memorial was that the stuffed animals were arranged nearly in the shape of a body in the narrow alleyway where she was found. Her family physically covered the exact place where she fell. It was a terrifying scene and I’m sure the toys brightened the block’s atmosphere and helped the many neighborhood children who live there process what were some intense sights and sounds. Children associate teddy bears and stuffed animals with comfort and safety. The memorials are a way of telling the local kids that things are safe again, if only for a brief moment.
The second function of the street memorial is to reclaim the victim’s innocence. Nakeia was a woman who was ultimately destroyed by her insatiable appetite for drugs. She sold her body to get them, and abandoned her children along the way. In other instances we’ve seen young men who were beloved by family and friends but had undeniably made bad choices and had negative impacts on their communities. Surely the families of the deceased struggle in private moments to resolve the fact that their children would still be here if they didn’t willingly get wrapped up in street life. Street memorials effectively turn the clock back to a time when things weren’t so complicated, when the deceased was just a child who liked simple things like stuffed animals and teddy bears. It allows friends and family members a brief chance to remember the deceased the way they want to remember them — innocent and pure — before having to spend the rest of their lives trying to figure out how things got so complicated, what changed and when, who’s responsible and in what measure and how to heal from this moment of ultimate insanity that left thier loved one dead and an entire neighborhood reeling from the traumatic impact of a homicide.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as social workers in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods.